The expectations at Kansas are high year-in and year-out so a 3-4 start put Jayhawk nation on red alert. It was the school’s worst start in over 30 years and suddenly there were murmurs of an NCAA tournament minus KU for the first time in 16 years. The natives were growing restless.
Well, it wasn’t easy on the fans, and it was weighing heavily on the minds of coaches and players. Coach Bill Self knew the future was bright for this team but dealing with the present perception of failure early on was no simple task.
“It was real hard. It was tough for the players too. Because regardless that a coach or a player should focus in on where they are and trying to get better and everything…I think the expectations around the program were tough because based on what people were saying everyone thought we were just serious underachievers --regardless of youth or circumstances, or whatever,” Self stated from his office Sunday night.
On the outside Self was preaching patience – on the inside he too was aching to see immediate results.
“To me it didn’t affect, I don’t think, how I coached my team, but I think it definitely affected maybe my approach or maybe my intensity level in practice. I don’t think I took it out on the players. We didn’t necessarily show it as much as everybody else did. I do think that weighed on us and put more pressure on us to perform,” said a candid Self.
When asked if this year compared to any other in his coaching career, Self answered with, “No, probably not, I don’t think so.” I suggested to him that he was as vocal at practices this year as any I’d seen. Maybe it was the hurt over the loss to Bucknell that still lingered. A loss like that makes you want to do everything in your power so that history doesn’t repeat itself – it gives you a renewed purpose. Or maybe it was just that the third year KU coach has never had such a young team that required this much attention.
“I think I was on them so much early--- so that they could play later. That’s almost how we looked at it the whole time. (We said) let’s not make any shortcuts for them, let’s be hard on them and even when they did well, I know our staff was still, ‘yeah, that’s good but’. I think we were awful hard, hard, hard (on them) early so we could play later and that’s kind of what has transpired,” Self said.
The only team I could think of that Self has coached that was close to being this young was his 2002-2003 Illinois squad which featured a trio of talented freshmen named Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and James Augustine – plus the sophomore duo of Luther Head, and Roger Powell. That team notched 25 wins and shared in a tremendous run at the title last season.
“Dee, Deron, James, Luther and Roger were the second youngest team I ever had. But they had Cookie (Brian Cook),” said Self who also had the services of senior guard Sean Harrington that year. “I think their basketball IQ was higher coming into the season, but I don’t necessarily think its higher today.”
“I think that these young kids have really done a great job of absorbing and really starting to see the game as the coaches see it. So I think they’ve done a marvelous job of maturing and making the extra effort to see the game the way we see it,” said Self who coached in his 400th game on Saturday.
And Self is confident that the way he sees the game is the right way. It’s important to believe in what you’re doing even when others don’t. It’s a necessary quality to surviving the rigors of big-time college basketball. Quin Snyder and Mike Davis suffered from a lack of it and will be looking for a job because of it.
Self has stuck to his guns amidst criticism and questions. While people continued to speculate why Stephen Vinson was playing over Mario Chalmers and why Christian Moody was seeing more time than Julian Wright, Self was busy driving home a message to his youngsters -- no matter the pedigree or credentials you bring to Lawrence if you don’t work and you don’t play defense…you sit. These freshmen came with a ton accolades and were handed absolutely nothing – they were forced to earn it.
Kansas fans are still getting to know the eighth coach in KU history but if they were struggling for a reason not to jump ship in December, look no further than the resume the 13-year Division I head coach boasts. It’s the reason he was hired. Contending for conference championships is the norm for Self-- not the exception. It’s the reason he was one of the hottest commodities before taking the Illinois job and again when the Kansas job opened up.
Needless to say with the team tied atop the Big 12 standings, the questions have subsided, and the bandwagon is bulging at the seams. Fans now understand the reason Self was so excited over his energetic bunch even when times were tough.
This year may in fact turn out to be like no other for Self – it wouldn’t surprise me if it turns out to be one of the most rewarding of his career. Recruiting major talent is sometimes the easy part – putting it all together seems simple, but it’s not. Self has done a terrific job and deserves to be Big 12 Coach of the Year for it.